The Warwick School Department is laying the groundwork for a scenario in which they may elect to sue the City of Warwick over a perceived lack of adequate school funding.
On Friday, May 18 the department officially released and advertised a request for proposals (RFP) to hire an auditor to perform a fiscal analysis of the schools and their operating budget, which would have to occur if the department moved forward and brought action against the city in superior court.
“Warwick Schools must prepare for every budget eventuality with regard to the operating budget for school year 2018-2019,” said Superintendent Philip Thornton in a statement on Monday. “The Warwick School Committee went forth with an RFP for a program audit of Warwick Schools as part of this preparation.”
Under Chapter 16-2 of the Rhode Island General Laws, school departments are given the right to bring action against a city or town following receipt of their budget appropriations if they are able to “demonstrate that the school committee lacks the ability to adequately run the schools for that school year with a balanced budget within the previously authorized appropriation.”
This is known as a “Caruolo Action,” named after former state representative George Caruolo who sponsored the legislation to create the legal provision. It has been utilized multiple times in Cranston since 2003, and was utilized in 2010 after the city cut the school’s budget by the maximum 5 percent allowable by the state after the 2008 housing crisis caused a recession. In that case, the court ruled with the City of Warwick and did not restore funding lost from that cut.
As of now, this measure is preliminary, as the school department does not know how much of the approximately $8 million ask for additional funding to their budget they will actually receive from the City Council. Schools asked for a $171.4 million. Avedisian budgeted $163.9 million. The school budget hearing is scheduled for May 29 at City Hall, and Superintendent Philip Thornton met with acting Mayor Joseph Solomon to discuss the issue on Monday afternoon.
“My concern is why are they working with less funding this year than last year?” Solomon said, speaking of former Mayor Scott Avedisian’s proposed FY19 budget, which in its current configuration level funds the schools from the city’s appropriations, however decreases the overall school budget by about $1.3 million; the result of a drop in state contributions stemming from declining enrollment in Warwick.
Solomon said he came to the conclusion that because Avedisian and Thornton were in a good working relationship, the school department had some prior knowledge of this development going into the crafting their budget. He said he hoped there would be no need for litigation moving forward, but did not comment on whether or not the schools would be receiving more money when the council makes their amendments to the proposed budget in the coming weeks.
Should the school department not receive additional funding from the city that it deems necessary to provide an adequate education to its students, the school committee would have to first approve an auditing company that responds to the bid during their June meeting.
Once approved, the auditor would have three months to provide a written report containing the summary of its findings, which would include a recommendation of whether or not the school department is justified in their claims that they cannot operate to a level adequate with the state’s Basic Educational Plan (BEP) under the proposed budgetary amount.
The audit would look at everything from the school department’s delivery of curriculum, distribution of its resources and management of its personnel to its adherence to state mandates and efficiency of its organizational structure from top to bottom.